The acuity of one’s solitude lies more on one’s psychological separation from the rest than one’s physical distance, at least that’s what I always believed. When Joyce depicts the loneliness of the protagonist of his masterpiece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it transcends more as metaphysical than corporal. Zoe Heller, in her novel, perhaps for the first time, affirms the interrelation between these two. Barbara, the mouthpiece character of Heller’s novel, is afflicted by her solitary existence both bodily as well as mentally and her affliction, I would maintain, is the central theme of the novel.
Like any piece of literary work with serious intent, Notes on a Scandal is capable of having multiple reads. The central event of the novel seems to be the scandalous affair between a teenager boy and his middle-aged teacher ‘Sheba’ Hart. The account was given by Barbara, another teacher from the same school who commences her story telling as a formal friend and acquaintance of Sheba and apparently a rather distant curious observer. As the story unfolds, the role of Barbara, leading to the event, reveals to be of dimmer prospect and hence she was rendered, more and more, from an impartial speaker to an unreliable story-teller.
Putting an unreliable story-teller at the heart of a story is nothing new. From Notes from underground (Dostoevsky) to Lolita (Nobokov) we have witnessed it so many times that it doesn’t echo any novelty any more, at least to a seasoned reader as me. What is curious though is the narrator’s own position with respect to the central event as well as the entire scene of urban post-literate middle-class that surrounds her pitiful existence. She is somewhat of an outsider, partly because of her vanity and partly because of her sexual ambiguity, and that gives the novel a whole new flavour. We have often seen Coetzee putting such a character into a central position: a woman smote by her solitude, aware of her station in life as somewhat of an outsider, accepting her deviation from the crowd both as a pride and as a bane. In Coetzee’s novels like “In the heart of the country“, “Foe“, “Age of Iron” we have encountered characters such as this (while Elizabeth Costello was somewhat different). But Heller, lacking the poetic prowess of Coetzee, could not uplift her craft up to that point. Her Barbara remains colder, more urban, more distant, incapable of having the passion to go on a rant even on her private journal, acutely conscious of her role as a narrator who often feigns disinterested objectivity. And all these attributes enthrones Barbara to the unique feature one needs to bestow upon one’s central narrator character.
The novel also deals with other features such as the underlying class consciousness and misgiving between the middle and working class of English society. Steven and his family being a part of working class while Bathsheba ensconced in her affluent upper-middle-class existence do not intend to be class representatives, but they ultimately end up being ones. But Heller, at least on outset, did not intend to write a story of class-consciousness among Londoners, she intended to put up an unconventional story of darker side of female psyche that literature, previously, has hardly dealt with and she ends up with a masterly work.